Amit Upadhyay repeats online misinformation as he claims to know why India’s population is growing: he says his Muslim neighbours are having too many babies, so Hindu women have a responsibility to bear more of their own.

A pharmacist by trade, Upadhyay is one of many social media influencers from India’s majority faith to have cultivated large audiences by spreading false demographic data to claim the country is being refashioned into an Islamic state.

For them, last month’s announcement that India had overtaken China to become the world’s most populous nation was not a cause for celebration, but a call to action.

“I tell all my Hindu customers to produce more children, to counter Muslims,” Upadhyay, who in his spare time curates a popular Facebook page from his home in Uttar Pradesh state, told AFP.

“Or else they will become a threat and eventually wipe out the Hindu religion from India.”

Upadhyay regularly publishes widely shared Islamophobic posts to his nearly 40,000 followers.

One post in April warned of an alleged plot by Muslims to “multiply their population to take control of India”.

India is home to 1.4 billion people, including around 210 million Muslims, but birthrates have declined across the board over recent decades in tandem with global trends.

The country’s last National Family Health Survey in 2021 showed an overall fertility rate of two children per woman, rising marginally to 2.3 for Muslim women.

A forecast issued the same year from the Pew Research Centre said that India’s Muslim community would grow to 311m by 2050.

But despite their growing share of the national population, Muslims would remain a small minority in a country of 1.7bn people by mid-century, according to the US-based think tank’s projections.

That has not stopped the spread of viral disinformation on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms claiming India is soon to become a Muslim-majority country.

One Facebook post sarcastically greeted the news that India’s population had overtaken China’s by thanking Muslims “for producing five-10 children” each.

Another post on Twitter said that the Hindu faith would soon disappear from India, while a supposed Muslim majority would replace the country’s constitution with “Islamic law”.

Population control

Conspiracy theories that allege a Muslim plot to secure the faith’s numerical supremacy in India have been a staple of Hindu nationalist ideologues for years. Similar theories of immigrants and minorities “replacing” majority populations have also been embraced by the far-right in other countries.

At times the theories have been indulged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has come to dominate national politics partly through its muscular appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.

BJP lawmaker Rakesh Sinha introduced into parliament a population control bill in 2019 that proposed to limit all Indian households to two children, garnering the support of 125 other MPs.

The bill was withdrawn after critics accused Sinha of targeting Muslims when he gave a speech on the supposedly glaring disparity between Hindu and Muslim birthrates — an accusation he denied.

The UN’s April announcement that India is now home to more humans than any other country on the planet has reinvigorated these claims.

“Hindus will get married once, and have two children,” Ishwar Lal, a member of a Hindu-nationalist group affiliated with the BJP, said in a public speech after the announcement. “Whereas Muslims get married four times and have so many children that they can have their own cricket teams.”

The same month, at a popular pilgrimage destination in the Himalayan foothills, a religious sermon exhorted a crowd of the Hindu faithful to wage their own demographic counter-offensive.

“From two children, Hindus have come down to producing one child,” priest Ravindra Puri told a crowd of hundreds at Haridwar. “This is causing an imbalance in the population.”

The solution to this imbalance, Puri said, was for the pious to have three children: “One to serve the nation, one to take care of the home and one to serve the religion by becoming a priest.”

India’s former election chief, SY Quraishi, has written extensively on the spread of disinformation about the country’s Muslim birthrate.

He said that claims Muslims would soon become India’s majority religion had proved to be a salient “propaganda” tool for Hindu nationalists.

“They continue to provoke Hindus to produce more children by creating a fear that Muslims will outnumber them,” he told AFP.

“This will never happen. “

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